One of the things I always mention before audiences concerning discrimination is how pleased I am, that in the face of all of the efforts to turn one group against the other, the members of the Congressional Black Caucus have compiled the best record in support of LGBT rights of any demographic group in Congress. The CBC has an even better record on these issues than the gay members. Not better than the openly gay members, I don't want to overstate this. But, they have been very supportive.
The members of the CBC were running into some flak from ministers in their districts who wanted to continue to denounce homosexuality from the pulpit and had been misled into believing that a hate crimes amendment would expose them to criminal liability. We pointed out that hate crimes have nothing to do with speech. They only add a penalty to an act of physical violence or property destruction that is already criminal. And I said, "I guess the best way to put it is--if this bill becomes law tomorrow it will still be legal to call me a fag. I just wouldn't recommend it if you're in the banking business." And that was the kind of energy we tried to bring.
When I retired there was a natural assumption by some that I was driven away by the anger and the bitterness and the level of debate in politics. And I thought this was kind of odd. I'd been doing this for forty years and I was seventy-two years old--why was it surprising that I wanted to retire?
But people said, "You were driven out by all that rancor weren't you?" The truth is I'm very good at rancor. It's also fun, by the way. Indeed, it's much easier to tell some right-wingers how stupid they are than to negotiate with a whole bunch of people to put together a constructive and complicated package in which compromise is inevitable. Rancor is what you do when you have decided that there is no ability to change the situation. That's what you do when you're debating the invincibly ignorant.
But that's not what we have to do to complete the job, which is already well underway, of making America totally equal for people who do not profess any religion, who are not theists, and who don't believe that there is some power beyond human beings that we have to make nice to. And part of how we'll do it is by not dwelling on the negative.
I was semi-joking when I told Bill Maher that I'm a pot-smoking atheist. I wouldn't really describe myself as an atheist. Atheism expresses more certainty than I have. My actual attitude is that if it's absolutely unknowable, don't bother me with it. So the question is, how do nonbelievers achieve equality? Well, it depends on how you frame it.
I just wrote a memoir. One of the things I recounted in it was a very important situation in the United States that we should talk more about and let people draw the implications of. It's the Terri Schiavo case. I was sitting in my apartment in Newton, Massachusetts, in 2005 (I think it was Easter, which I suppose was appropriate for people who thought Congress could bring her back from the dead), when we got a summons to Washington. We were to vote on a bill by which Congress would override the decisions of every level of court in Florida and basically compel the hospital to ignore the wishes of Schiavo's husband to allow her to die, which, he said, without contradiction, had been her wish. Not to euthanize, but just to remove the feeding tube. I should add that Senator Bill Frist (R-TN), a very eminent heart surgeon who was then trying to get the Republican nomination for president, said that he had been watching Terri Shiavo on television and he could tell that she was making eye contact, a rather bizarre diagnosis. It turned out that she had long since lost any brain function. Her eyes were not connected to anything; there was nothing going on there.
But here's what happened after we were summoned to Washington. The Senate had voted on the bill earlier, and it passed unanimously. We took the bill up in the House and some of us fought it. Under the procedure that requires a two-thirds vote, it got 300-something yesses to sixty noes. A lot of members ducked the vote. By the way, it was one of the best debates in recent times for one very simple reason: it happened on a Sunday. Members were summoned to Washington and nobody had time to get their staffers to write a speech. So the members actually had to get up and talk to each other.
Of course, the argument was essentially a religious one: How dare human beings interpose between this woman and God? God will decide when she is taken. I later debated that...